“Hardened harridans, decent women, beautiful young girls…”

Abbreviations and sources:
OBP = Old Bailey Proceedings 1674-1913
OED = Oxford English Dictionary online

Newspaper cuttings from British Library

It was early morning on 13th February 1811, when “a considerable number of female convicts took leave of Newgate, and proceeded on their route for one of the out-ports… to be immediately shipped to Botany Bay. In this collection of reluctant emigres, there was a curious mixture of hardened harridans– some were decent women of middle age, and several beautiful young girls” (Morning Post, 14 Feb 1811). What course of events culminated in this sorry procession? I was interested to find out more about the sentencing process for women in the first half of the nineteenth century during a period of reform in the criminal justice system. What verdicts and sentences were given? Who was, and who was not, sent to Botany Bay? Is it possible to discern changes in sentencing following Peel’s reforms? This was not a random collection of women. There was a deliberate selection process; the judge performed a balancing act which attempted to satisfy overall aims such as deterrence, reform and prevention of re-offending. On the other hand, British Empire colonies had to be established and as early as 1787, the aim of sending female convicts to Botany Bay was: “to assist in populating that intended settlement” (World & Fashionable Advertiser, 6 Jan 1787).

My methodology involved investigation of a limited selection of available records from before and after Peel’s reforms, for comparative purposes. To establish who was sent to Botany Bay, I collected information from online Australian convict registers and transportation lists, made available by the State Library of Queensland (Convict Records 1787-1867 ). These were linked back where possible to Old Bailey trial records, by names and dates (OBP). Published trial records conceal as much as they reveal, presenting only the events and behaviour that were permissible within the prevailing legal and ethical standards. My study emulates other historians in their “preliminary investigations… a shipload here, a boatload there” to assess the attributes of transportable female convicts and to compare them with those who were sentenced during the same periods but left behind (D. Oxley, Convict Maids, 1996, p.13). Contemporary newspaper accounts cannot be relied upon as impartial sources but they capture the freshness of events as they unfold. They give context to the questions being asked in society and in parliament on the best ways to deal with offenders, along with the results of experimentation with punishments that affected so many people’s lives.

Our streets swarm with strumpets

First some background on the environment that the female convicts were leaving behind. It is not difficult to find examples of the unflattering stereotype of women who did not conform to the demure and pious ideal of a patriarchal society. As early as 1734, it was noted that country girls flocked to town for work as servants and ended up in prostitution “running… from Bawdy-House to Service, and from Service to Bawdy-House again… so that in effect, they neither make good Whores, good Wives or good Servants, and this is one of the chief Reasons our Streets swarm with Strumpets” (‘Father Poussin’, Pretty Doings in a Protestant Nation, 1734, pp.4-6). A year later, there was a less than chivalrous advertisement for the latest publication of trials from the Old Bailey session house, priced at six shillings (about £25 today), which included amongst the notorious highwaymen and some remarkable murders: “Thirty-one [trials] of Whores for privately stealing, which are very entertaining…; Eleven, for Rapes and Attempts to ravish, several of which are very humorous” (London Daily Post & General Advertiser, 15 Feb 1735).

By 1795, Georgian London was the sex capital of the world with 50,000 prostitutes of various types in a population of nearly a million, if magistrate Patrick Colquhoun’s estimate is to be believed. On average, they earned two guineas a night (compared to a skilled London tradesman or craftsman who could earn three shillings a day in the 1770s) which gives an indication of the extraordinary value of prostitution to the eighteenth-century economy (D. Cruickshank, The Secret History of Georgian London, 2009, pp.33, 129 & 137). In the early nineteenth century, England was undergoing massive changes, building towards an industrial nation and recovering from the after-effects of wars. At the bottom level of society, stealing and whoring provided the means for women to survive and descriptions of trials reveal their lack of personal morals; their “trickery, lies, manipulation and disloyalty” (B. Smith, A Cargo of Women, 1988, p.43). Like it or not, convict women were perceived as “damned whores” by their male contemporaries, such as ship’s surgeon Lieutenant Clark aboard Friendship in the first fleet (A. Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police, 1976, p.267). In this environment, the views of the all-male judges and juries were tainted because although prostitution was not a criminal offence in itself, it provided opportunities to commit crimes. Viewed by men as the result of indolence and an excuse not to find employment, the women themselves saw it as paid work, or at least as a supplement to the income they received through other low-paid jobs.

In reviewing the context for a study of sentencing, our modern values mean that we like the punishment to fit the crime and seen through that lens, the outcome of eighteenth and nineteenth century court cases may appear haphazard.  However, there was a kind of logic in sentencing decisions. Judges worked within a framework of punishments that were allowable for various offences, around which they applied varying degrees of discretion. Modern preferences for consistency and lack of bias were not in the forefront of a judge’s priorities, with his class-based prejudices and the politics of protecting property from the depredations of the criminal classes uppermost in his mind, especially in the aftermath of the French revolution.

Who went to Botany Bay and why?

We now know something of the environment prevailing in England and have glimpsed something of the calibre of the women heading for Botany Bay, but how were they chosen for their forced migration? We return to our journalist of 1811 and the procession of women from Newgate, on their way to the Admiral Gambier and Friends (often shortened to Friends) for their voyage beyond the seas. Of the three more serious offences (at least as defined then), there was one woman indicted for coining, an embezzler and a receiver of stolen goods who were each sentenced to a term of 14 years. Highway robbery was a capital offence that did not necessarily involve masked men on horseback. It also defined the acts of three women who received commuted sentences of seven years transportation. Two had stolen from people in the street but not violently and the third stole a watch from a drunken man on his way home from a public house while “half lovingly and half violently” trying to persuade him to “go with her” in a doorway (OBP, ref:t18100411-49, 11 Apr 1810).

The majority of women were convicted of theft in the forms of grand larceny, pocket-picking, theft from a specified place or robbery and they received sentences of seven years transportation. One exception who had stolen £16-worth of cloth received a commuted death sentence. Of 12 women indicted for shoplifting, eight were convicted of the lesser offence of stealing, but not privately, in a shop; the other four were sentenced to death, commuted to transportation for life. Two of them worked together and when they were discovered with pieces of printed cotton worth more than 40 shillings under their petticoats, they resisted arrest (OBP, ref: t18100221-52, 21 Feb 1810). A 13-year-old girl, Esther Gamble, managed to steal £50-worth of lace without the knowledge of a shopkeeper and when found the next day she had sold some of the lace to pawnbrokers and to a girl who was leaving for the country; her tearful confession and her youth won her the compassion of jury and prosecutor (OBP, ref: t18100718-8, 18 Jul 1810). In the last case, a woman stole cloth worth only 10 shillings, so it seems likely that this was not a first offence; in any case the sentence was commuted to transportation for life on account of her pregnancy, at the age of 38 (OBP, ref: t18100606-50, 6 Jun 1810).

The average age of this contingent of 47 women was 28, ranging from 12 to 45. Nearly 40 per cent of the women were less than 25, which might account for the bevy of beautiful young girls and in a period when the average life expectancy was 40, a similar proportion constituted the middle-aged women (under 35). Only six showed a hint of prostitution by their own comments or the circumstances of their cases, including the 12-year-old and the oldest being 31. The result of this analysis confirms that far from being members of a professional criminal class, the majority of female convicts bound for New South Wales in 1811 were first offenders stealing items worth less than £2, equivalent to the cost of one dress today (Oxley, Convict Maids, pp.62). There was little planning or sophistication involved at the time of the offence and rather pathetic excuses in court. Eleanor Williams protested: “I never saw the muslin. When the lady turned round, I told her I was very willing to strip, to see whether I had any thing. I pulled off my old coat that I had on, and by pulling the coat off it throwed the muslin down” (OBP, ref: t18100606-52, 6 Jun 1810). These women had broken the law, but can they be described as hardened harridans? They did not conform to the customary behaviour of women in polite society, but as Smith comments: “one of the women’s few defences against their life as victims of society in general, and authoritative males in particular, was defiantly raucous, bawdy, cheeky, generally recalcitrant behaviour. They had to pretend not to care” (Smith, Cargo of Women, p.241).

Who was not transported in 1811 and why?

The trials of the women aboard Friends had taken place between November 1809 and January 1811. In looking at 140 other women who were tried in the same period, the average age was nearly 32, ranging from 13 to 80, with just under half being over 30 so they were less suited for populating Botany Bay. The more serious cases of murder and burglary were reduced to lesser offences and those of shoplifting or theft from a specified place were often reduced to ‘not privately’ or ‘not in the dwelling house’; some managed to bring in witnesses to their good character or pleaded distress, so received a lesser punishment. Apart from two who were whipped and discharged, a conspirator who was fined 20 shillings and a teenager who received a respite, most endured a shilling fine and imprisonment in the house of correction or in Newgate with terms ranging from a week to two years. Two women who committed their offences when intoxicated received a whipping and a further seven were given the additional punishment of hard labour (including the 80-year-old). There is not enough evidence to tease out the reasons for one woman being given a week’s incarceration in Newgate while another, charged with the same offence, must endure a year, except that human nature must have played a part. If a woman played up to her expected gender role and presented a penitent demeanour, maybe a judge could be won over rather than being irritated by argumentative denials. Aside from the necessity of sending young and healthy women to the colonies (even though in some cases their offences appeared similar to those that received lesser sentences), I agree with Smith that “on the evidence of the available records, and within the perspective of their times, most magistrates tried to be fair to the women” (Smith, Cargo of Women, p.239).

Were they all whores and drunks? Undoubtedly some were – of those in the contingent not sent to the colonies, it was obvious from their trial notes that four made money by selling sex. That prostitution was seen by some as a way to earn a living was noted by Mayhew in an interview with a prostitute with two years’ experience: “a poor girl must live” and “wouldn’t be a servant for anything; this was much better… new bonnet once a week… liked the casinos… and always danced” (H. Mayhew, The London Underworld in the Victorian Period, 2005, p.17). As for drink, given circumstances of poverty and lack of legitimate well-paid work for women in a patriarchal society with no husband to support them, it is hardly surprising that alcohol was involved in several of the cases. “When I am sad I drink… I am very often sad, although I appear to be what you call reckless… when we think that we have fallen, never to regain that which we have descended from, and in some cases sacrificed everything for a man who has ceased to love and deserted us, we get mad… there’s nothing like gin to deaden the feelings.” (Ibid). Some women used the lure of prostitution to take advantage of men who were the worse for drink and divested them of their watches and cash. There is no knowing how many women got away with this crime, but the embarrassment of being caught in this position would have prevented many men from prosecuting. The women that were caught failed to impress the jury with tales such as “I do not know how the watch got up the chimney” or “I do not know how I came by it [a watch retrieved from her bosom], I was in liquor” (OBP, ref: t18100411-51, 11 Apr 1810 and ref: t18101031-85, 31 Oct 1810).

Was transportation sufficient to deter offenders?

Of particular note in this regard was 13-year-old Esther Mary Gamble whose trial at the beginning of this period found her guilty of feloniously stealing curtains worth five shillings for which her prosecutor said “it is a pity a young girl like you should do these tricks”; she was sentenced to six months in the house of correction and there kept to hard labour (OBP, ref: t18091101-88, 1 Nov 1809). She evidently did not learn her lesson as it appears that almost immediately on release she was stealing lace (as described above) and was lucky to be transported for the lesser term of seven years, given her previous record.

The need for reform of the bloody code and the review of punishments were increasingly on the agenda in parliament. In 1810, Samuel Romilly explained that prevention of crime could be divided into three classes: deterrence, prevention of re-offending and reformation of the offending party. He complained of the injustice of convicts sometimes having to wait until the year before expiry of their sentence before being transported. Particularly unfortunate were the female convicts who were unable to work their passage home, so even a seven-year sentence was for life (Caledonian Mercury, 14 May 1810). By 1824, the delay in transporting women was still a subject of complaint in the news. Problems of overcrowding were exacerbated in gaols that were only meant as temporary detention facilities, not to mention the serious expense to several counties around the metropolis for their upkeep, all at a time when servants and wives were in high demand in the colonies. The recorder had done his best to keep delays to a minimum by reporting punctually on condemned prisoners, but the king was elusive – he hated signing death warrants (Ipswich Journal, 9 Oct 1824).

The idea of transportation to the far shores of Australia certainly acted as a deterrent in the 1780s, no doubt fuelled by news filtering back of Governor Phillip’s ideas of the best method of instilling fear into hardened offenders, the old buccaneer’s threat of marooning them with the prospect of being eaten by savages (G.B. Barton, History of New South Wales from the records, vol.1, 1889, p.469).By 1817, the worst fear appeared to be the floating prisons docked in the Thames, known as hulks. Classification of the prisoners on board these vessels was apparently lamentable; impressionable youths were incarcerated with hardened criminals and there were inadequate arrangements for segregation of the sexes. To the chagrin of the government, convicts were volunteering to be transported rather than being incarcerated in the hulks (Morning Chronicle, 19 Feb 1819).

Transportation was effective in one respect. There was little chance of convicts returning from the colony, therefore preventing re-offending, at least at home.


Were there any signs of Romilly’s idea of reformation for the women who were actually sent to Botany Bay? Conditions for females on the voyage to Botany Bay had evidently improved by 1819. Previously “the ordinary practice was for the officers and seamen of each ship to select the women, with whom each thought proper to associate during the voyage” but this was no longer tolerated. The ministrations of the famous prison reformer Elizabeth Fry prior to embarkation were thought to be effective. However, early in 1819 it was reported that women in the colony were “after three o’clock in the afternoon, turned out loose on the town, and from having no fixed quarters [despite frequent petitions to build a barrack], the greatest number were obliged to prostitute themselves… and were the cause of the male convicts going out to rob and plunder to supply their wants” (Ibid). This was disputed later in the year when Mr Bathurst detailed the regulations applied to women arriving in the colony, including their selection as servants by married men and women, with only 50 or 60 employed at the woollen factory at Parramatta with an opportunity to work for themselves after hours: “It by no means absolutely followed that they gained their living by prostitution” (Trewmans Exeter Flying Post, 15 Apr 1819).In 1825, twelve women, who were about to alight in Sydney from the Midas, wrote a letter which was published in the Morning Post to thank the Ladies’ Committee for their attentions prior to their departure from Woolwich. They had received kind treatment on their voyage and as a result, the surgeon Mr Cameron was fulsome in his praise of their good behaviour. He confirmed Fry’s belief that if these women were less harshly treated by the authorities, they would “return to the paths of virtue” (Morning Post, 26 Oct 1826).By the time of their arrival, they would at least have a roof over their heads and may not need to resort to crime to survive.

By 1827 back in England, a rising number of successful prosecutions could not proceed to the bitter end for practical and humanitarian reasons, resulting in convicted felons walking free. Something had to be done to restore confidence in the judicial system. In Peel’s general repeal act, 136 capital statutes were replaced with new legislation, effectively reversing the escalation of offences that constituted the bloody code. Untouched were the laws relating to treason, murder and rape. The remaining capital offences included burglary and robbery, burning buildings (as opposed to the lesser offence of burning crops, wood or vegetation), rioting and stealing cattle or horses. Another statute abolished impedances to conviction such as benefit of clergy and the challenge of jurors. In Peel’s reforms, grand and petty larceny were consolidated into simple larceny.

How were Peel’s reforms received? The immediate impact was to restore the appetite for prosecution. The fear of putting someone to death for committing less serious but hitherto capital felonies had vanished and there was a steep rise in convictions. Rather than commuting a capital sentence, many were directly sentenced to transportation for terms of seven years for a first offence (or if there was a recommendation for mercy), fourteen years or for life. Transportation became the punishment of choice; particularly in the age range 16-30:

Females and sentences

Old Bailey cases showing the age range of females and their sentences in 1811 and 1833
before and after Peel’s reforms. Source: OBP

While imprisonments remained about the same and death sentences were dramatically reduced, 67 per cent more women in that age group were transported in 1833 than in 1811. Weidenhofer’s statement is widely quoted but arguable: “Whereas only the more hardened male offenders under sentence of transportation were actually transported to the Colonies, all women under sentence, provided they were healthy and under forty-five were transported” (M. Weidenhofer ,The Convict Years, Transportation and The Penal System 1788-1868, 1973). My study shows that a small number of women over 45 were transported both before and after the reforms and many under that age were not transported for their offences.

In February 1828, the first conviction after Peel’s reforms was 14 years transportation for a Hertfordshire butler and a housekeeper who improperly disposed of provisions belonging to their master. The story was printed as a warning to servants of “Mr Peel’s new act for the more effectual punishment of this species of depredators” (Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, 16 Feb 1828). By May of the same year, due to the alteration of the character of the colony in New South Wales, Peel proposed a review of the proportion of males and females and an overall limit on the number of convicts transported there; he urged the use of hulks in place of seven or fourteen years of transportation, as the convicts were unlikely to return and their potential value as labourers would be lost (Morning Post, 31 May 1828).

Debate continued in 1830 when the expense of building Millbank penitentiary (opened in 1816) had exceeded the original estimate and running costs were high. Peel was urged to transport all convicts immediately they were sentenced, thereby saving the costs of confining them only to find that they returned to “run another career of wickedness” on their release. Peel’s response highlighted the difficulties of managing the convict system as it invited so many conflicting opinions. The practice of transporting a larger number of female convicts to satisfy “overwhelming considerations of morality” was met with cries that numbers in the penitentiary were thus depleted, rendering it an underused waste of resource. Meanwhile, New South Wales had outgrown the reasons for sending convicts there, appearing attractive to “young and active profligates” who were able to live in ease and comfort at the expense of the government. Peel was in favour of a more stringent secondary punishment at home (Morning Chronicle, 22 May 1830).

Just at the time when Peel was introducing his reforms in 1827, we are indebted to Peter Cunningham, surgeon of the Royal Navy, for his description of female convicts aboard transportation ships. He apparently could be relied on for his “strong love of truth” and “fierce independence of mind”, with “peculiar advantages in studying the character of criminals in his frequent voyages to the Southern hemisphere.” His male bias was barely discernible when he wrote: “poor Jack… To see twenty wicked eyes winking at him at one and the same time, no wonder his virtue should sometimes experience a fall!” Cunningham’s view was that the reforming “interference” of Mrs Fry was too suddenly applied, resulting in an overwhelming return to vice when restraint was removed. Apparently, women suffering concubinage with the sailors led to “personal attachment unknown to them before” and they became reformed characters. The voyage was whiled away with singing, dancing and drunkenness but at least the convicts’ allocated Bibles were put to good use; as observed when a “coterie of… nymphs” were “unpapering their curls” (Morning Chronicle, 26 Jul 1827).This report would have done much to confirm the prevailing public impression that female convicts were worthless whores beyond the reach of reformers.

Evidence from the Amphitrite

‘Dreadful loss of the Amphitrite’ on National Library of Australia

We get an appreciation of the character of another consignment of female convicts who were destined for Botany Bay as described to a correspondent of the Times by John Owen, boatswain and survivor of the Amphitrite, which was wrecked off Boulogne in August 1833; his account was confirmed by another survivor, John Richard Rice but none of the women lived to corroborate or deny the story. There were 108 women aged 12 to 50; a dozen were “tender mothers” to their children, ranging in age from five weeks to one Scottish girl of 14 (who spent the short voyage in hospital and was not expected to live). One “old Scotchwoman” treated her three-year-old boy cruelly; in contrast a prostitute was found teaching her natural child to read every day. Owen was obliged to throw pails of water over badly-behaved women to keep them away from the crew, but some were quiet and orderly, including one poor Welsh girl who spoke no English and was robbed of all of her possessions on the first day. The ship’s surgeon (in contrast to Mr Cameron on the Midas), was uncaring and ineffectual in his supervision of them and on occasion he incarcerated a riotous woman for hours in the watch-box, like an upright coffin with a few air-holes in the top (Derby Mercury, 23 Oct 1833).

Of these 108 women, 99 appear in the convict records of the State Library of Queensland (Convicts transported on ship Amphitrite). It was possible to cross-reference the 17 designated as “Middlesex gaol delivery” with Old Bailey trial records. Owen had characterized the 40 women he thought came from Newgate gaol as mostly prostitutes, none above 30 years of age; some hardened and outrageous but some well-disposed. He thought that if the latter “had been kept away from the bad ones, and taken pains with, they would have behaved very well”, again echoing Fry’s message.

In reviewing the court proceedings, it is evident that seven were indeed prostitutes, with an additional five whose activities involved late nights, their ill-gotten gains being filched from the persons of inebriated men. I have counted one of the prostitutes as Mary Brown who was convicted in May 1832, but there was another of the same name convicted in October 1832. She hoped to join her husband whose transportation for life had left her destitute and distressed (OBP, ref: t18321018-185, 18 Oct 1832). Similarly Maria Hoskins told the constable that “if she was not transported for [stealing a watch], she would commit something more heinous that would send her out of the country – that she had applied to Covent-garden parish for relief, and had been refused” (OBP, ref: t18330214-216, 14 Feb 1833). The average age of these women was 25, ranging from 18 to one 37-year-old prostitute called Charlotte Rogers, whose plea to the court was “I am an unfortunate girl, and cannot have a character, but I am perfectly innocent of the charge for which I am brought here” (OBP, ref: t18330516-75, 16 May 1833). An eye-witness of the abortive rescue attempt of the Amphitrite wrote that the captain and surgeon did not feel authorized to liberate prisoners in their care with the result that they were lost, with a final lament: “I never saw so many fine and beautiful bodies in my life” (Bury & Norwich Post, 11 Sep 1833).

What happened to those left at home in 1833?

By far the most significant number of women whose trials took place between May 1832 and May 1833, comparable with those transported on the Amphitrite (except for one who had waited since February 1831) were indicted for simple larceny, Peel’s new category consolidating petty and grand larceny. The average age of these 117 women was 35 ranging from 13 to 68, so they were significantly older than those transported. As in 1811, there was a wide range of terms of imprisonment from three days to 18 months, but there was no mention of the place of confinement (such as the house of correction or Newgate) or the one shilling fine that were features of earlier trials.

One “unfortunate girl” sentenced to seven years transportation escaped the fate of the Amphitrite; she left on the Janein January 1833 (OBP, ref: t18321018-233, 18 Oct 1832). In contrast with those transported, only two other women acted like prostitutes, hiring a room and stealing from men – one stole her client’s clothes and sold them on via a male accomplice (OBP, ref: t18330214-234, 14 Feb 1833). Three women aged 60 and 61 with confinements of a year or more had previous convictions or another indictment to answer. Over half the women received a reduced sentence due to their pleas of distress, the appearance of penitence or good character, or pleading guilty. Granny Ryan was indicted to set an example; her prosecutrix said: “I have nothing to say against her – it is merely to deter others that we bring her here” – she had stolen clothing from the workhouse in which she was a pauper inmate (OBP, ref: t18321129-173, 29 Nov 1832). The impression is that these were minor crimes which were dealt with quickly; indeed simple larceny was downgraded from felony to misdemeanour from 1854.


There was a selection process involved in the sentencing of female prisoners. A larger study could determine more about the environment and circumstances in which crimes were committed by females. As discovered, the sex industry in London was extensive and provided a living for countless women, along with opportunities for theft. Family historians in Australia have led the way in determining the fates of transported female convicts and their descendants. It would be fascinating to learn more about their treatment at the hands of colonial authorities, their interaction with other ex-convicts and reformers and their ultimate settlement into their new lives. In England, the primary desire in the early days was to replace capital punishment with something that was equally terrifying and would act as a deterrent. It was important to rid the country of its more troublesome convicts; the repeat offenders who habitually occupied the gaols. There was also the idea of reforming wayward characters. In Botany Bay, it was desirable that the women would be of a suitable age to help with the main aim of populating the colony. Inevitably this led to the women being perceived as prostitutes. Even before they left the shores of England, some of them were written off as whores, if we take Johnson’s definition of a harridan as “a decayed strumpet” (OED). 

From MSc essay: Hardened harridans, decent women, beautiful young girls: who was, and who was not, sent to Botany Bay?